Speaking One’s Truth: An Interview with Diannely Antigua

by    /  February 20, 2020  / Comments Off on Speaking One’s Truth: An Interview with Diannely Antigua

Photo Credit: Savuth Thor










This series — Latinx & Proud! — is a look into the world of Latinx literature and the poets who use language to explore the boundaries of their communities and identities. By sharing these interviews and articles, we hope to elicit conversations that empower and amplify the Latinx community in Pittsburgh and beyond. 

Diannely Antigua is a Dominican American poet and educator who visited Alphabet City this January as part of City of Asylum’s Latinx and Proud! reading series. Her debut collection, Ugly Music, was published in May 2019 by YesYes Books and won the Pamet River Prize. Diannely has received fellowships from CantoMundo, Community of Writers, and the Fine Arts Work Center Summer Program. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of Net nominee. Her work can be found at The Adroit Journal, Washington Square Review, and Bennington Review. Following the reading, Diannely sat down with Sampsonia Way to discuss Ugly Music, her journey to writing, and finding community in poetry. To learn more about Diannely and her work, visit her website.

I. On Ugly Music

I’d like to start by talking about tonight’s reading. It was beautiful and added a new dimension to your work. I read that you’re a singer — how has music influenced your writing and reading?

I would say I was a singer before I was ever a poet. I grew up singing — in church, around the house, at school concerts — I was obsessed with music. A large part of music, and especially singing, is language. Once I started writing poetry, it felt natural because I was already accustomed to noticing the rhythm and sounds that words create. 

When one sings — at least for me, because a lot of the singing I did was in church — there’s a type of faith that’s behind it. A song is a belief transmitted to whoever is listening. There’s something similar to that in poetry. The poet proclaims words into a room, or on the page, and asks the audience or reader to accept that as truth. 

In my book, a lot of the poems are heavily influenced by music. For instance, the poem “Suggested Sad Songs for Broken Hearts” borrows lyrics from songs by The Shirelles and Hole. The lyrics become a part of the language of the poem.

Then there are other poems that were written to music like the first in the collection, “Self Portrait as Nostalgia.” This one in particular was written to Yann Tiersen’s song, “Comptine d’un autre été : l’après-midi.” Listening to this song, I was so overcome with emotion, and it felt the way nostalgia feels — there’s something that you’re missing, but you’re not quite sure what it is. I felt compelled to write this poem in the same way.

Music also influenced the way in which the book was organized. I wanted to ride the frequency of a song, the rise and fall of sounds, of emotions. The sections titled “Verse” introduce new information to the central narrative, while the “Chorus” allows space for repetition. The “Bridge” then takes the book into a different register. I truly admire the movement of a song and wanted my book to do some of the same. 

Can you talk a little about the Spotify playlist that goes with the book?

Yes! The playlist took forever to compile. I almost feel like it took longer than organizing the collection itself.

These songs were meant to represent what each poem would sound like if it were played out loud. The playlist is a living embodiment of the book. Songs by Billie Eilish, Amy Winehouse, and Lana Del Rey appear quite often because their music has this element of sexy sadness that complements that same sexy sadness in my poems.   

II. On Beginnings and Looking Back

How did your journey into poetry begin? What was your writing like when you were first starting? 

My older sister gave me a journal for Christmas when I was nine years old, and I just started writing whatever a nine year-old thinks. I wrote about my crush in school, getting my period, the first time I was kissed. 

I wrote about the system I was in. I grew up very religious and sheltered from the secular world. Every aspect of my life was dictated, and I had to follow a certain set of living standards to be accepted. I wrote about how I wanted to break free. But at the same time it was so ingrained in my thought process. I was always writing about God. He was always there. 

Later I experimented with other genres. I started writing fiction, nonfiction, and then poetry was the one that stuck. It was always nudging me in different ways throughout my life. Even in church. The Bible is truly a book of poetry — the Psalms and the Proverbs, especially. As a result my work includes a lot of religious imagery.  

How was the experience of writing the “Diary Entry” poems, looking back at your own words and older selves? 

The “Diary Entry” poems are collage poems that use language collected from my journals. Each of my 36 journals has a corresponding number, so for instance, “Diary Entry #4” comes from my fourth journal. I collected language from those pages and used that material to build the poems. I gave myself a set of rules to follow.  I was allowed to change pronouns and verb tenses; God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were all interchangeable. These were just a few of the rules I had set in place. 

Basically, I wanted the “Diary Entry” poems to retell the stories of my life but with a different lens. The poems present a more emotional truth, rather than a factual truth. In those poems I allow myself to say some outrageous things. I allow the speaker (who is related to me in some ways) to have these unique experiences that are adjacent to those in my own life.

When talking about speakers in poems, poets often make clear they’re separate from the author. Do you feel removed from your past selves that have written in these journals?

To a certain degree, yes — and then, no. I don’t feel removed from them, but rather, I’d use the word unblended. We’re still very close, but at the same time, I have my identity and then the speaker has her identity. It’s almost like a family. Within me lies a family, and all those past selves are there. 

Some of my past experiences have been quite difficult and traumatic, and I never want to do a disservice to my former selves by removing them from my consciousness. Although I’m no longer going through these particular hardships, I want to be grateful for their perseverance, because now there’s a present self that’s alive because of them. 

Your poetry is very fearless in that you’re open to talking about things that often make people uncomfortable. Where does the ability or impetus for that come from? 

A lot of it stems from how I was raised. The topics that I write about were topics that I was not allowed to ever say in a room. In the church, no one ever talked about sex or mental health, so my urge to write so candidly stems from my desire to right a wrong. I’m trying to give myself the freedom that I didn’t have, that I wasn’t allowed to have. 

When the book first came out, I was getting a lot of messages from people expressing how important my work was in their own mental health journey. It’s warmed my heart knowing that my story has received such a positive response. The book is sad, but I wanted it to be a way into talking about sadness and trauma openly. My book is an invitation to enjoy the freedom that comes with speaking one’s truth. 

III. On Community and Writing as a Latinx Poet

Did you have a sense of community growing up — and has that community changed as you’ve grown?

My community growing up was the church. We called each other brother and sister; they called me “Sister Nelly,” and they were truly my family. We were there for one another, whether it was helping a member of the church move, or visiting and praying for someone who was sick. We learned how to always be in service to one another. We just did things for one another, and it was a very selfless community in that way.  

However, that community changed for me when I was a teenager. I had been perfect in their eyes until then, until I liked a boy. I was counseled by the pastor and ultimately not allowed to date this boy. But I dated him anyway, as any 16 year-old girl would do, and because of it, my life began to unravel. Everything that I did in church — being a singer, playing flute in band — all of those things were stripped away from me.

It shattered my world, and the community shunned me. It crushed my heart because I had dedicated my life to this church only to have it taken away from me. But because of this, I began to realize that there was more for me in this world than the church. There was more for me to explore creatively, even spiritually, and now was my chance to discover it.

It wasn’t until poetry came along that I finally felt I had regained a community. I joke and say that I’ve just been in search of a new cult this whole time, but there is truth in that statement. My cohort at NYU became my family, my poetry church.    

And the poetry community is the complete opposite of what I had experienced before. Poetry feels right, it feels accepting, and it feels very safe, too.

Tonight’s reading was part of City of Asylum’s Latinx and Proud! series. Did you have a sense of Latinx community growing up? And if not, have you found it since? 

Growing up, the only Latinx community I really had was my immediate family. The church created a barrier that made accessing that part of my identity very difficult. Anything that wasn’t directly related to God was secular and therefore not allowed. Dominican music and dance, for instance, were unacceptable. Even my natural hair became something I had to “tame” to present myself more modestly.  

But in my adulthood, I feel like I’ve come into my own Latinidad by going to therapy, working through internalized racism specifically. After doing that important work, I was ready to embrace my language and my culture. Now it’s impossible to keep me away from a dance floor if bachata is playing. 

Poetry, as well, has been a way for me to recover the Latinx community I never had. Being a CantoMundo fellow, for instance, has been a fantastic opportunity for me. Being in the company of such care and talent has been beneficial for my growth as both a Latinx poet and individual.

Has embracing your heritage and specifically the language affected your craft at all?

To a certain degree, yes. I used to write more poems specifically about the language and my Latinidad because I felt I had to fit a certain mold. I felt I had to write a certain kind of poetry. It had to be in Spanglish — otherwise, was it really a poem by someone who’s Latinx? My struggle was in allowing myself to explore other parts of my identity. Being Latinx is one part of myself, but I’m also a woman; I’m someone who has depression and anxiety; I’m someone who loves fiercely; I’m a server at a restaurant, a teacher, a daughter. Truly, “I contain multitudes.”

It was important that I explore all of me — I didn’t want to feel as though I needed to present my Latinidad for someone else’s consumption. My poems are still Latinx regardless of whether they’re written in Spanglish or not. My poetry is Latinx because a Latinx person wrote them. 

I once heard Carl Phillips read, and he said something similar. I can’t remember the exact quote, but he asked, “What is a ‘black’ poem? What does that even mean?”

Exactly! “What is a Latinx poem?” Do we have to talk about immigration? Do we have to talk about Spanish? I mean yes, all of those things are important and we should be writing those poems, but I don’t think it should be expected. Latinx poetry should include anything and everything. It should include joy! God, let’s write about joy! That’s going to be something that I work on. Writing immortalizes moments and people, and why not immortalize those that have brought me joy? Yes, I have experienced great sadness but, in spite of it all, there truly has been joy.

For forthcoming Latinx & Proud! events be sure to visit City of Asylum’s event calendar. 

Comments are closed.